Border school nurtures future Karen leaders
Proud family members bearing flowers, colourful knitted lanyards and envelopes filled with Thai baht climbed into the convoy of buses at the Mae La refugee camp before they headed off along the winding mountain highway to celebrate the graduation of loved ones.
Their destination was the Kaw Tha Blay Learning Centre, a post-secondary school for young Karen migrants only 4 kilometres east of the Thai-Myanmar border. Having completed studies in computer skills, community health, mathematics, accounting, English and Thai, the 35 students were graduating March 7 after completing a two-year programme.
Figures released in 2013 by the Border Consortium, a group of 10 non-government organisations that aids displaced people from Myanmar, showed that 119,156 refugees live in the nine camps along the border, of whom more than 45,000 were residents of Mae La.
Regarded as a hub for study, a few thousand students have moved from Myanmar to Mae Lae to acquire an education. Among them are the students at the Kaw Tha Blay Learning Centre (KTBLC), many of whom made the journey to Thailand on their own. Some were followed years later by family members who settled in Mae La. They come from different areas of Kaw Thoo Lai (the Karen name for Kayin State) and will return there to assume leadership positions in education, community health and defence.
As graduating student Kyaw Soe Oo watched the sun set over Kayin State, he summarised the sentiments of his class: “I want to be a good leader for my people.”
Kyaw Soe Oo is happiest at home in his small village in southern Kayin State, to which he will soon return to work for the Karen National Union (KNU).
He has important jobs to do for his people, he said, but acknowledged that there are many challenges ahead for the KNU. Some involve infrastructure.
“It is very difficult to work together with other villages because we don’t have phones and the roads are not good, especially in the rainy season,” Kyaw Soe Oo said.
Developing education opportunities
After more than six decades of conflict, the KNU and the Myanmar government reached a ceasefire in early 2012. KTBLC students, most of whom were born in the late 80s or early 90s, intimately understand the effects of war: trauma, economic hardship and limited access to education.
In April 2002, Cathy and David Downham, Canadians who had been volunteering at the Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot, met Saw Kshakalu, a KNU officer who was running a hostel for unaccompanied youth in Mae La. The hostel was called Kaw Tha Blay, which roughly means “freedom country” in Karen, and was home to 27 children battling lethargy, scabies, lice and malaria. “Because they were unaccompanied, these children were last on the UNHCR list for supplies like rice, oil and chili,” Ms Downham said.
In 2003, the Downhams co-founded Project Umbrella Burma, to address the limited education options available to many Karen youth. “They could be warehoused in camp, become precarious migrant workers in Thailand or stay in Karen State and in many cases do forced labour in dangerous conditions as IDPs [internally displaced persons],” she said.
The Downhams formed a lasting partnership with Saw Kshakalu and began fund raising and collecting donations for the hostel. The students had access to primary and secondary education in Mae La but did not have post-secondary opportunities.
“In 2005 we had more than 100 students [in the hostel], with 25 graduating from various schools in the camp and there was only one post-ten school” said Ms Downham, referring to Saw Kshakalu’s decision to start a post-secondary school. “These young people needed a chance to mature before going home [to Kayin State] to become leaders.”
Crossing the Moei
In 2005, Saw Kshakalu established Kaw Tha Blay school, which later became the KTBLC, north of Mae La camp on the Myanmar side of the Moei River and became its director. PUB began funding the school soon after.
Former KTBLC student Ree Tha Say arrived in Mae La in 2000 to attend secondary school. “We couldn’t speak Karen at the school in my village [in Myanmar] and the school was too expensive for my family,” she said. She began studying at KTBLC in 2005 and remembers taking turns keeping watch for Myanmar government soldiers at night.
After graduation in March 2008, the school learned that Myanmar’s military government was planning to build a road in the area.
The school’s teachers and students stripped the school of fittings, furniture and equipment and shipped it across the Moei back to Thailand. Saw Kshakalu, the last to leave, set what remained of the school on fire.
In mid-2008, KTBLC was relocated to Tung Tam village in Thailand, where Ree Tha Say remembers digging pits for toilets and cutting and carrying the bamboo used to help build the school.
A focus on sustainable healthcare
Now, six years later, and after training as a medic and working at the Mae Tao clinic, Ree Tha Say is the community health teacher.
“People in Karen State are very poor and cannot go to the hospital; they don’t have Thai [identification] cards so it is very expensive for them to travel to Thailand for care,” she said, explaining that they need to pay bribes to pass through checkpoints. “My vision is for free community health care in Karen State.”
Like other KTBLC graduates, Ree Tha Say proudly carries a responsibility to her people and a desire to return home.
Of the 35 students who graduated this year, 14 have been selected by the French NGO, Aide Médicale Internationale, to gain community health experience before training to become medics.
KTBLC graduate Hser Wah finished the training in 2013 and is completing a five-month acupuncture course offered by the Chinese Medical Association.
“There was a focus [at KTBLC] on protecting our people and learning about human rights,” said Hser Wah. “Acupuncture is cheaper than Western medicine and is good for the treatment of stroke and many diseases. I want to go home [to Kayin State] to teach and treat my people.”
Another acupuncture student, Hsar Blut Doh, said studying at KTBLC had enriched her life.
“When I lived in Mae La I couldn’t go anywhere and I never spoke with foreigners; at KTBLC I learned about many different people and experiences,” she said.
Hsar Blut Doh fondly remembers growing tapioca and sesame at the school and enjoying trips along the border in the back of Saw Kshakalu’s truck.
In common with Hser Wah, Hhar Blut Doh plans to return to her village to work at a new hospital built by the KNU.
First-year KTBLC student Zaw Myint Oo, from Mon State, and has constantly been on the move in the border area since he was a child. His mother died when he was young and he was taken in by his maternal grandmother to help run her farm. Apart from a brief reunion with his father in 2006, he has been separated from his family for most of his life. In 2007, his father, stepmother and brothers were accepted for resettlement in the United States, where they live in Worthington, Minnesota. “I felt so alone when my family left,” he said.
Zaw Myint Oo went to Umpiem Mai camp for grade 10 to 12 and one year of post-secondary education.
“After school I had no options; I was going to go to Bangkok for work,” he said. “I kept my eyes and ears open and found Kaw Tha Blay. I was so proud of myself when I got this chance and I decided I would work really hard.”
Zaw Myint Oo arrived at KTBLC in the back of a truck driven by one of the many Karen who support the school. “I am not lonely when I am with the other students who are also working very hard; this encourages my heart.”
Saw Kshakalu says he began the Kaw Tha Blay hostel in 2002 because of the dire need for accommodation for young Karen.
“More and more people call me every year to help their children,” he said. “Education helps the poor families; their children become medics, soldiers, leaders. I have a responsibility to help them. I have a responsibility to offer education.” In his role as director, Saw Kshakalu handles KTBLC admissions, accepting Karen students who are committed to returning to Kayin State.
Thazin Aye arrived in Umpiem Mai in 2007 to gain an education that was not available in her small village in Kayin State. “My parents divorced when I was ten and left for Bangkok,” she said. “My grandmother sent me to Umpiem because she couldn’t pay for my school in Burma.”
Thazin Aye lived in a hostel founded by the renowned migrant and refugee healthcare provider, Dr Cynthia Maung, who established the Mae Tao clinic, and was sent to KTBLC by friends of her father.
Returning to Kayin State is emotionally difficult for Thazin Aye. “I am always thinking about my parents; my village is not home because they are not there,” she said.
Future leaders in limbo in Thailand
Students Koe Moe and Hsa Dah are happy to have finished their first year of study, though their mobility will be restricted during the break. “I’m afraid of the Thai police along the border,” said Hsa Dah. “They would charge me 200 baht to pass.” The only identification document available to most KTBLC students is a student ID card, which despite being stamped by the Education Ministry in Thailand, does not prevent the students from having to bribe if they are stopped at Thai checkpoints along the road paralleling the border.
“Up until around 2010 we were rescuing students from the lock-ups in Mae Tan and Mae Sot,” said Ms Downham, referring to the precarious status of many Karen in Thailand, who do not have enough money to pay the bribes needed to pass through the checkpoints. “The last 20 months have been better.”
Koe Moe, Hsa Dah and many of their classmates want to return home to Kayin or Mon states but don’t have enough money. Some will find temporary work on construction sites to earn the money needed to return home.
With plans to become nurses and, hopefully, medics, they look forward to returning to KTBLC for the 2014/15 school year, which begins in June. “We need to help our people; many do not have a good situation,” said Koe Moe, as Hsa Dah nodded in agreement. “Rural people do not have education or resources; sometimes there is no medicine so we can be leaders,” Hsa Dah said. “But the people in my village are happy, happy as they can be.”
Graduate K’Nyaw Paw has been in Thailand for 12 years and grew up in the Kaw Tha Blay hostel at Mae La.
“In Thailand sometimes I am very sad and I miss my family,” she said. K’Nyaw Paw intends to return to her small village after completing a short English programme in Mae Sot. “I am very happy at my village; it is beautiful and quiet,” she said with a bright smile. “I hope my children can go to school in Karen state.”